Scenes of mothers and children were fashionable in eighteenth-century France, much encouraged by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who advocated a ‘natural’ approach to child-rearing.
A young mother is sitting in a beam of light at a table with three of her infants wriggling on her lap. An older child is seated at the table, while another plays in the shadows on the floor and a baby’s cradle is rocked by an old woman. The young servant’s headdress and the straw-covered flask of wine on the table suggest that the artist was in or knew Italy. They were clearly familiar with Greuze’s painting The Well-Beloved Mother (private collection, Madrid) as the group of the mother and children is very similar.
We do not know who painted this picture. Although Jean-Honoré Fragonard produced sketchy interior scenes with working women during his first stay in Italy in 1756–61, the brushwork does not resemble his extremely fluid way of painting.
When exhibited in 1910 this painting was called ‘The Happy Mother’ and was said to be a work by Fragonard – neither the title nor the attribution were accurate.
The pretty young mother is sitting in a beam of light at a table with three of her infants wriggling on her lap. An older child is seated at the table, while another plays in the shadows on the floor and a baby is rocked in its cradle by an old woman. Although the mother’s expression is hard to make out due to the sketchy nature of the painting, she does not appear to be obviously joyful – in fact she looks completely overwhelmed and exhausted.
Through the archway, food is being prepared in the shadowy kitchen by a male cook and a woman holding a plate, and a maid seems to be serving the child at the table. A large dish, a jug and a straw-covered flask of wine are also on the table. The young servant’s headdress and the flask of wine suggest that the artist who painted this work was in or knew Italy. They were clearly familiar with Greuze’s painting The Well-Beloved Mother (private collection, Madrid), as the group of the mother and children is very similar. The artist may have known the painting through Jean Massard’s print published (in reverse) in 1775. There was a great fashion for scenes of mothers and children in eighteenth-century France, much encouraged by the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had a significant impact on thinking about education and childhood, advocating a more ‘natural’ approach.
The young mother’s bright red skirt and the grandeur of the room, however plain, together with the number of her servants suggest that the household is quite wealthy. Perhaps the beam of light is intended to represent heaven looking favourably upon the young lady in blessing her with such a large and healthy family, and to highlight her sacrifice and devotion in accepting the role of mother. The dog at her feet, a symbol of marital fidelity, may represent her dutiful spirit and devotion to her husband and children. However, as she gazes blankly into the light, her boisterous infants squirming on her lap, she looks as though she somehow didn’t imagine her life panning out quite like this. Either the painting is intended to suggest the noble self-sacrifice of the new ‘natural’ motherhood, or it represents a critique of Rousseau’s fashionable new ideas.
We do not know who painted this picture. Although Fragonard painted sketchy interior scenes with working women during his first stay in Italy in 1756–61, the brushwork here does not resemble his extremely fluid way of painting and the setting is less picturesque. Hubert Robert (1733–1808) was also working in Rome and painting scenes similar to this at the time. Although some aspects of this painting are similar to Robert’s Laundress and Child (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown), notably the dog and the infant on the left, the differences are too great to make it likely that this painting is by him either.
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